SMITHFIELD — Every Monday morning, the clients at Divine Destiny Adult Care have something to look forward to – the calm, warm presence of Sally the therapy dog.
Sally, a 6-year-old Boston terrier, comes every Monday to Divine Destiny, a Smithfield nonprofit that cares for adults with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and cognitive and developmental impairments. The day care offers arts and crafts, puzzles and games.
Every Monday, Sally makes her rounds to the seven people who spend the day at the center, tongue sticking out and ears up and alert. Sally always ends up in the same spot – Mr. Ben’s lap.
Bennie Roberts, or Mr. Ben as he’s known at the day care, has Alzheimer’s disease. He has a dog at home, and Sally’s visits help him not miss his own pet. “It’s my dog and this dog,” Roberts said. “It’s wonderful.”
But who is the man holding Sally’s leash? That’s Shane Gentry, a professional dog trainer who runs his own company called “Sally Said So.” Most of the time, Gentry says, the people he and Sally visit don’t notice him. Instead, they always say, “There’s Sally and the big guy.”
And he’s happy to be known as just the “big guy.” “It is 100-percent about the dog,” said Gentry, who volunteers his time at Divine Destiny.
Making a difference
The dog therapy team has made the biggest difference for Marcus Martin.
Martin, 22, can’t speak, but he can communicate vocally and with gestures. Before Martin met Sally and Gentry, he was afraid of both dogs and men and wouldn’t go near either.
It took Martin about a year, but over time, he became more and more comfortable with Gentry and Sally. And at a visit this month, Martin eagerly came up to Gentry and petted Sally twice.
“It literally brought tears just to see Marcus come out,” said Katrina Boylan, executive director of Divine Destiny.
But Gentry does more than just bring Sally; he also plays guitar at the therapy sessions. Martin loved the music, Gentry said, so he bought him his own guitar. Whenever Gentry and Sally visit, Gentry holds the guitar and helps Martin strum.
Sharon Palmer, program assistant at Divine Destiny, started tearing up as she spoke about the day Gentry brought Martin his guitar.
Palmer said Gentry and Sally’s visits have helped Martin grow his social skills considerably – he will even interact with other men. “Now he’ll meet and greet almost anybody,” she said.
“The people we have here, they’re so wonderful,” Palmer said. “They get in your heart.”
Divine Destiny, the only state-certified adult care center in the county, opened its doors just over a year ago. The program currently has seven participants but can support 24, and Boylan wants to get the word out. The center, she notes, has a professional staff, including a licensed practical nurse and registered nurse.
Boylan started the center to help care for her father with Alzheimer’s disease and her son, who is developmentally impaired. Lowe’s has named Divine Destiny a community hero; the company is going to help refit the building’s back yard so participants can do gardening and outdoor activities, Boylan said.
Boylan said she can’t find words to thank Gentry for the time he spends at Divine Destiny. “Shane and Sally have been a godsend to Divine Destiny,” she said. “They have made a world of difference for our participants.”
Gentry insists he’s the lucky one. “I could not be more blessed to be the vehicle to bring that there,” he said. “It all comes from upstairs.”
Gentry began dog training about four years ago after an injury forced him out of his previous job. As he thought about what to do next, Gentry said, he felt a calling to go into dog training.
“I said a prayer, and I went for it,” he said. “God is good.”
Then about a year ago, Gentry became a dog therapy team with Sally. A therapy dog is not the same as a service dog, Gentry said. Therapy dogs do mostly feel-good visits for many people, while service dogs typically work one-on-one to help those with a disability or health problem.
Gentry also trains other dog therapy teams, about 20 since starting last year. He loves his work, and his favorite part is Mondays, when he visits Divine Destiny and also Carolina House of Smithfield, a senior living community.
And Gentry doesn’t see himself stopping anytime soon. “If my company shut down tomorrow, and I had to go get a job doing on-the-clock work for somebody else, I wouldn’t work on Monday,” he said. “That’s just all there is to it. It’s that important to be there for those people that are expecting Sally to show up every week.”